Skip to main content

Eve L. Ewing on Leadership, Racial Trauma

April 19, 2019
Eve L. Ewing (left), David Figlio, Ray Loeschner. Photos by Steve Drey.
Eve L. Ewing (left), David Figlio, Ray Loeschner. Photos by Steve Drey.

Eve L. Ewing struggled as a black student at a predominantly white university. But as she learned to cope with the repercussions of racism, she also gained clarity about her relationship with higher education.

“My great understanding was -- and still remains -- that it’s not the institution’s job to love me,” Ewing told a crowd of more than 300 Northwestern University students, faculty members, and staff during the Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership lecture. “It doesn’t offend me. It means it’s my job to look out for myself and surround myself with people who do love me and see me as a human being.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio, Ewing shared both sobering and lighthearted moments about her life as an academic, award-winning poet and writer, Twitter celebrity, and public intellectual.

The author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, Electric Arches and the writer for Marvel’s Ironheart comic series, Ewing talked about what makes a good leader and her personal experience with living and studying in a racially hostile environment. She also called for Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot -- and politicians in general -- to show more political and moral courage when it comes to fixing problems like education.

“Our city has a massive socioeconomic and racial divide, and to me, that is morally unconscionable,” said Ewing, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. “What if we decided to end homelessness in our city or make sure no child goes hungry? What if we did that with the same tenacity as we tried to get the Amazon bid? Students need food, a safe and stable place to live, treatment for trauma, and healthcare to do well in school. You don’t need a policy degree to figure that out.”

Ewing was recently named the winner of the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, which honors an early-career author with ties to Chicago. She was the fifth speaker in the Loeschner Leadership Series, which was established with a gift from SESP alumnus Ray Loeschner (MA57), the former president of Olivet University and a trailblazer in higher education. Ewing’s own vision of leadership includes a collective or distributed approach that recognizes that everyone has a key role to play. 

“In order for Martin Luther King Jr. to show up at (the 1963 protest) March on Washington and give an incredible soul-stirring speech, someone had to make sure there were buses to get people there, someone had to make sure to get permits, to make sandwiches, to knock on doors,” she said. “Those are the kind of unheralded things that are necessary for systems change to happen.

“Leadership is to the ability to know and uplift those skills, not only for yourself but for others,” she added.

Born and raised in Chicago’s Logan Square community, an area plagued by gang violence in the 1990s, Ewing attended Chicago Public Schools and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago with a degree in English Language and Literature. She earned her doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

But it wasn’t an easy journey. Ewing nearly dropped out as an undergraduate due to a variety of factors, including poor mental health from what she called “a racially hostile atmosphere.” As the only black resident of her dorm of about 100 people, she spent much of her time and emotional energy trying to explain to peers why, for example, party themes like “Straight, Thug and Ghetto” was hurtful and offensive.

“I was always aware that the way other people talked about me was not the way I saw myself,” she said. “The terms ‘broken home,’ ‘at-risk youth,’ ‘inner city,’ ‘gang-infested neighborhood’ were all accurate descriptions of my life. But that’s not how I saw myself, as a human being with subjectivity and agency.”

Her dual identity influenced her decision to become an education sociologist and shapes her research, which focuses on racism, social inequality, and urban policy, and how these forces impact American public schools and the lives of young people.

Instead of using language that highlights deficits, Ewing asks people about their needs. “I’m always trying to ask, ‘what do people want? What do they desire? What dreams do they have?’” she said. “In the same way we can’t look in the mirror and see ourselves as the greatest trauma that ever happened to us, we can’t look at our communities that way. It’s dehumanizing.”

Ewing told students who are experiencing racial trauma to trust their instincts – they are likely not imagining things -- and to seek mental health care while they have access to it in college. She also stressed the importance of documenting their histories so their stories are told and become part of institutional memory.

The experience of whiteness needs to be incorporated into teacher training, especially since 82 percent of public school teachers are white and the majority are women, Ewing said.

 “We should not underestimate the cognitive leap we are asking these teachers to make,” she said. “White people are coming into our classrooms and for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve thought about race and the first time they significantly interact with people of color. They’ve never had a black friend. And we’re asking them to be a minority in a space where they are surrounded by children who are vulnerable and looking to them for care, support, and intellectual nourishment.

“It’s not enough to be culturally competent,” she added. “We need people to be actively fighting racism and white supremacy. And that’s a really big ask.”